Dr B K Mukhopadhyay
(The author is a Professor of Management and Economics, formerly at IIBM (RBI) Guwahati. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Dr. Boidurjo Rick Mukhopadhyay
(The author, international award-winning development and management economist, formerly a Gold Medalist in Economics at Gauhati University)
Empirical evidence shows that during any crisis such as the pandemic today, consumers expect proactive action not only from their Government, civil societies, and local neighbourhood, but also the brands they buy from. If you are a business aiming to stay relevant, financially successful, and sustain a strong reputation - is not about what you do, nor what products and services you sell, but more importantly - who you are and what is the meaning that defines your existence?
However, marketing has many roles to play and one of the key ones is to keep the customers 'informed'. Companies balance financial responsibility with the need to keep consumers informed and engaged when things are uncertain and for long. Research by the American Association of Advertising Agencies shares that 43% of consumers find it reassuring to hear from brands during the lockdown phase. In addition, 56% said they like learning how brands are helping their communities during the pandemic. Only 15% said they'd rather not hear from companies.
During the pandemic, certain global companies invested heavily in new market analytics to know everything there is about which new trends are here to stay and which company strategies will require recalibrating. A COVID-19 ready client-agency relationship is the new norm of customer relationship managers and marketing teams. In the second quarter of 2020, Amazon recorded the high growth in the face of COVID-19 reaching $89 bn. Following the trend, companies like P&G and GSK have also doubled their investment in the e-commerce space more than ever before.
Marketing understanding and adaptation
Once again, recalibration is required with innovative product design, packaging and also pricing models to survive in the 'new normal' market game. One of the new 'differentiators' for the brands is 'health and safety' protocols, offering bookable shopping times, fully sanitized delivery, and at-home 'make-up' experiences. This phase of marketing innovation is resource-costly at the same time.
Markets will get to experience the radiant and blue skies again after the floating dense clouds of masks and hand-sanitizers slowly fade with time. The sun (i.e., customers) shall shine again recalibrating the demand driven markets and semi-quarantining the current supply-driven state (thinking of the supermarket stock limit/ quotas/ hoarding/ price irregularities amongst others).
COVID-19 didn't end competition; the slump will accentuate it. For businesses, big or small, particularly those who have established a 'brand', markets assume that they will need to have multiple plans ready to go. They must be willing to let go of existing 'the right way to go' and devise a newer and more innovative way to reach out to stakeholders (customers, suppliers, civil society, and others). Prioritising people, planet and profit shall resume its position, nonetheless.
During this crisis, regardless if you are or are not on social media, there has still been a bombardment of video ads, emails and other outreach initiatives that cannot be considered more than a generic reaction to the current crisis? The digital noise from adverts and corporate noise has not shunned us at all, though has indeed adopted a slightly softer tone.
Then there are brands that have finally decided to start slowly moving again as some markets start to reopen, only to 'play safe' on the path of reactivity and not proactivity. And there are those who remain conservative and feel like the sensible choice when there's uncertainty about how long the crisis will last. The show must go on, though many entrepreneurs have slowed down on marketing and PR activities.
Use #WFH to generate consequential output
While not much new content is being created in this phase, no matter how those creative 'zoom' screens may appear on BBC, France24 or our own Zee News/NDTV/Republic interview and their 'lockdown creativity' slots, most creative companies and marketers are spending time now building some new campaign narratives, initial creative, copy, baseline graphics, etc. This is a good period when creative staff from media, R&D, marketing and sales are #WFH to do some deep-thinking, and deliver the consequential output when the time comes, executing new campaigns post-pandemic will take muscle memory, not mental horsepower.
Business marketing over the years has evidenced that leveraging genuine empathy could be a real asset. Think of the 90s ads of Nescafe and the story building ads of 'a lot can happen over coffee' and that drinking coffee appeals to something personal. During this pandemic, some companies have appealed and acted towards the cause. In the automobile sector, e.g., jeep released some positive messages to encourage social distancing and 'stay at home' practices. It also says in its online commercial that "with a little patience, the views will get better".
The company database still retains the voice and feedback of customers and data from their research programmes—this is a good time to uncover the emotions underlying people's shifting attitudes and behaviours in the market. Instead of repeated ads (and most of the time, irrelevant), companies need to make sure that they understand the process of customer engagement. The cultural and cognitive connection is equally important.
Best practices shared
There are some prominent examples to share in light of the above para. Dove, a popular Brand for decades now, created a spot shining a light on the courage of health care workers. Companies like Budweiser and Burger King are focusing on social distancing and encouraging people to do their part by staying home. Apple quickly mobilized their resources to produce much-needed PPEs. Nike has temporarily removed its subscription fees for its health and exercise app to help people stay fit while quarantining.
Also, in some developed countries, they are appreciating the 'retail heroes' who are working around the clock to ensure not many returns empty-handed during this period of lockdown – a period that has strangled the capacity and also ability of the supply chain to function effectively. While job cuts are happening in huge numbers pretty much all over the planet, big-box retailers in Canada such as Loblaw and Save-on-Food have been paying extra wages to their front-line staff as a gesture of appreciation for their efforts.
It is a good and recalibration time, unavailable during 'normal' times, for businesses to rethink how they sound in their newsletters, how the 'new content' on social media can be better created, along with how all the ads, emails, webinars and podcasts may be given an overhaul considering the current priorities and well-being of the customers and clients. Marketing campaigns are known to have solid long-term goals, especially in the case of brand management. This pandemic has asked us to rethink some of our fundamentals afresh, for example short-term planning and incremental innovation may work wonder in the immediate post-pandemic stage. Such a shock to the system that the lockdown has now ignited - for both people and institutions alike - the ability of the market to absorb newness will certainly face some consequences.
Therefore, there will be new markets created, new products introduced factoring in new demand, projected consumption patterns and behavioural changes in customers – so relying on detailed long-range planning as companies have practised for long may actually hurt an institution. The rapidly changing market dynamics may not give that much certainty that buys 'time' to plan things long-run, survival may become a top priority over turnover (of profit and not of employees, that is) to ensure sustainability.